Farmers Dodge Moral Outrage with Free-Range Veal

New England dairy farmers have a new product: free-range veal. The milk-fed calves spend their short lives roaming pastures instead of cooped up in pens the way traditional veal is reared. Producers hope the meat will catch on with consumers who avoid veal for moral reasons.

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Depending on your politics and palate, veal is either the product of animal cruelty or delicious when breaded and fried, on the bone, a little lemon. Mmmm. A few New England farmers - all too aware of veal's reputation - have begun raising free-range veal.

From member station WBUR, Curt Nickisch reports.

CURT NICKISCH: Karen Rowley's(ph) father did not want her to farm.

Ms. KAREN ROWLEY (Dairy Plant Owner): He actually sold the milk tank to make sure that I didn't milk cows.

NICKISCH: There is no money in it, he said. But Karen couldn't let go of the fourth generation dairy in northeast Connecticut, even taking a day job to keep it afloat. Now she has a way to make money where she never expected, by producing free-range veal from male dairy cows.

Ms. ROWLEY: They probably at the end of this year will have shipped eight or nine. And it's extra money. This day and age you need all the extra money you can find.

NICKISCH: Rowley makes $500 per calf. She used to get 100 a piece selling them to large veal operations. That's where they're raised on milk formula in stalls, which the industry says are large enough for them to stretch and lie down. You may have seen the photo campaign from animal rights groups. It's a different picture here on Rowley's farm.

Ms. ROWLEY: I tell you when they're healthy. When they stretch the first thing when they get up, they're feeling good.

NICKISCH: Rowley's cows are feeling good because they have entire pastures to literally frolic in with their nursing mothers. All the calves end up in the kitchens of high-end Boston area restaurants.

At trendy Oleana in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chef Ana Sortun is braising shoulders and shanks. She was afraid to add veal to the menu in this liberal city.

Ms. ANA SORTUN (Chef): I thought, oh God, I don't know if this is going to sell, but I'll try it because I loved it. It's a hit. We sell tons of it every night.

(Soundbite of restaurant)

NICKISCH: Like that very evening.

Ms. SORTUN: Okay, here goes the first bite. It's divine.

NICKISCH: Restaurant customer Rebecca Ferry(ph) says the words free-range tell her the calf she's eating was not cooped up in pen.

Ms. REBECCA FERRY (Diner): Well, I get a lot of brief from my daughter about the fact that I do occasionally eat veal. I like it a lot. But it would make a difference to me in the frequency with which I would eat veal, if I knew that the animals were being compassionately raised.

NICKISCH: While the free-range label is putting some consumers at ease, it's creating tensions with the American Veal Association. Steve Kraut is president.

Mr. STEVE KRAUT (President, American Veal Association): If these folks were going to raise this product, market it under the name of veal, and then denigrate the long-standing veal industry in this country, I guess it would have been nice to have heard from one of them first.

NICKISCH: Kraut thinks free-range producers should be working together with him to build demand for veal. Instead, he's afraid the free-range product is coming at the expense of conventional producers, and because free-range calf taste different, his organization may ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture to say they're not truly veal.

Mr. KRAUT: We wouldn't want to see a situation where confusion could develop amongst consumers as to what product is what.

NICKISCH: But free-range veal producer Karen Rowley says she's not competing for the same consumer. She wants to reach people who do not eat veal now because of concerns about how the calves are raised. She says hers live better lives.

Mr. ROWLEY: They have the best 16 to 20 weeks of life that you can imagine. I mean, they're having a good time out there. And they with what they need to be, they're with their folk, with their mother.

NICKISCH: And that, she says, is more than a lot of animals get.

For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch.

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